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Last Updated: Monday, 29 August 2005, 07:12 GMT 08:12 UK
Petite green cars tempt tourists
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

The narrow, cobbled streets of Cordoba in southern Spain are no place for a car, but a Spanish entrepreneur wants to change that.

Gem hire car in Cordoba
The cars have a top speed of about 20mph
Alfredo Romeo opens the door of a newly built garage just off one of Cordoba's main streets. He can hardly wait to show off the cars inside.

He points to a sleek, curvy little number. "It's a wonderful car, a marvellous car," says Mr Romeo with used-car salesman relish.

"It's noiseless. It's very safe. It's reliable. This model is the two-seater. I love the cars."

But Mr Romeo is not selling cars, he is renting them. And he is not talking about Porsches or Lamborghinis. Instead, he is renting Gems, or Global Electric Motorcars.

Half a dozen of the vehicles are scattered throughout the garage, plugged into the mains. They are charging up for a day of work on Cordoba's busy streets. One charge is usually good for about 50 miles (80km).

Gems are made in the US by a division of Daimler-Chrysler. They have a flowing, curvilinear design reminiscent of an Apple eMac computer, or a Volkswagen Beetle.

Blob attack

Objects with that kind of shape have picked up their own moniker - blobjects.

Alfredo Romeo has been taken with the idea of blobjects ever since he heard technology guru Bruce Sterling discuss them in a speech.

Cordoba is a city of the senses. There are streets where it truly smells like flowers. We have a great climate here, too
Laura Rodriguez, Blobject
"Sterling said something that I really love," says Mr Romeo. "He said, 'Blobjects are going to float our world.'"

The Spanish entrepreneur loved the name. He felt it matched his vision for what personal transportation might be like in the future.

When he teamed up with two old school friends to launch the electric car rental business, he decided to name the company Blobject.

The company rents the electric cars to tourists in Cordoba, as a safe, convenient, and environmentally friendly way to see the town. It costs about US$50 (28) for a two-hour rental.

The Gems turn heads as they cruise along the city streets. The cars have a top speed of about 20mph (32Km/h), so scooters whip right by you.

But Mr Romeo contends that slow is better for sight-seeing anyway. And besides, he says, there are the extras.

Open source autos

Each Blobject car comes with a touch-screen computer system mounted in the dash. Through a USB port, you can plug in a flash drive containing information on Cordoba in Spanish, English or French.

Gem hire cars in Cordoba
The Gems can be hired for US$50 for a two-hour rental
By using GPS technology, the computer keeps track of exactly where you are in the city.

When you pass a certain landmark, the computer then knows to display the appropriate text, audio and video information about that landmark on the screen.

The computer system is based on open source software developed by a company in Seville, Spain. As with any open source software, anyone can improve and change Blobject's code, as long as those improvements and changes are shared with others.

Mr Romeo insisted on using open source. Not only was it cheaper, he says, but it also allowed him to better customise his product.

"With proprietary software, innovation comes from the people in marketing," he says.

"But with open source, innovation comes from the guy who is really in the market. It comes from someone who knows the city."

Communist funding

Blobject's cars have other customised features as well.

It's a communism that moves logically toward something that is very different than what it used to be
Paco Tejada, local government official
"For example, we decided not to put doors on the cars," says Blobject partner Laura Rodriguez.

"Cordoba is a city of the senses. There are streets where it truly smells like flowers. We have a great climate here, too. In a closed car, you couldn't experience any of that."

Not everyone is taken with the electric cars. The city's taxi drivers call them "caracoles", which is Spanish for snails.

As they pass, the taxis lean on their horns. They would probably yell obscenities at you, if they were not going by so quickly.

But the local government is behind the Blobject effort. It has given the company some money, and has set aside special parking places for the electric cars around Cordoba's main tourist sites.

"They are focusing on an important sector to the city - tourism," says Paco Tejada, the local government official in charge of tourism. "It seemed to us like an important entrepreneurial initiative."

That may seem like typical government talk. But Cordoba's city government is controlled by the Communist party. When I point out that funding entrepreneurial projects does not sound very communist, Mr Tejada is amused.

"Well, it's the communism of the future," he says laughing. "It's a communism that moves logically toward something that is very different than what it used to be."

Alfredo Romeo is moving ahead as well. He has opened a second Blobject office in Seville.

And he has just taken delivery of some new additions to his fleet. They are four-seater electric cars. "The sedan model," he calls them. "You know, for the whole family."

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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